Poverty and the polar vortex

Today I read two very different but still related stories about things that happened in Hammond, Indiana due to the polar vortex.  Both stories emphasize the plight of the working poor in the United States, and how extreme cold affects them in ways that many people may not have even considered.

The first was about a house fire that claimed the lives of three small children and put two others and their father in the hospital.  The second was about a warehouse where workers were forced to continue working – without heat – even after the state had declared an emergency.

In the first story, a family who had been struggling with poverty had already had all of their utilities – electricity, gas, and water – cut off, and had tried to use a propane space heater to keep warm.   A fire started, and the father tried to save the children.  He succeeded in saving a 6 year old and a 2 year old.  The others, a 4 year old, a 3 year old and a 7 month old, all died.  The father is now in the hospital in critical condition, having received severe burns.  The city was supposed to have conducted an inspection of the premises, but it couldn’t get hold of the property owners and so the inspection kept getting delayed.  Finally it was scheduled for January 16th – too late to save these children, sadly.  The property management company blamed the family for the delay in inspection, although the property managers seemed to have issues of their own as well, having been fined on a number of occasions and not having all their paperwork in order.   Overall, a tragedy that should have been preventable at several different times, and yet happened anyway because a working man could not afford heat his home.

The other story involves a warehousing company whose primary client is Wal-Mart.   Here’s part of the article.  Note what I have emphasized.

They allege that unaddressed issues including broken dock doors and lack of heaters leave the warehouse’s workers exposed to snow, rain, ice, and freezing temperatures. WWOC organizer Sean Fulkerson told Salon that the facility “had torpedo [gas] heaters before Wal-Mart got the contract,” but “when they switched it over to a Wal-Mart facility they pulled out the heaters” because “they didn’t want to pay the gas bill.” Now, he charged, “people were getting written up for going to the bathroom and trying to warm their hands under their hand driers.”

When Linc switched sub-contractors last fall, WWJ alleges workers were told they would have to re-apply for their jobs and pay $40 each for background checks; organizers say the company backed down – and employees not only kept their jobs but got a rare raise – after a delegation of community activists and Wal-Mart retail employees confronted management in support of the warehouse workers (captured on the campaign video below).

Linc labor strife escalated during a Sunday evening shift on January 5, after county officials declared a state of emergency due to extreme weather, ordering non-emergency vehicles off the road. Organizers say employees of Linc and its sub-contractors were working in temperatures of negative 15 degrees, as worsening weather meant mounting risks if they were required to stay until the scheduled late-night end of their shift.

Stammis told Salon that he and other employees repeatedly went to management that evening seeking permission to leave early, but were rebuffed. “We’re like, ‘What’s going on, the whole world is shutting down outside,’” said Stammis. “He’s like, ‘No, get back to work, we’ve got to work until we finish everything.’”

Having worked for companies who blithely ignored safety and labor regulations and even common sense, I can definitely relate.  But I can’t imagine having to work in these conditions.  No one deserves to be treated like that.  I am a big believer in safety and take it very, very seriously.  So when I read that a private employer ignored instructions to stay off the roads, and forced its employees to work in sub-zero temperatures (at least one employee had to be treated for frostbite), and punished employees for trying to warm their hands under bathroom hand dryers, I find myself wondering why OSHA or someone else does not come down on this company like a sledgehammer on a tent stake.  How on earth is any of that legal never mind ethical?

Yet another reason I refuse to give companies like that any of my money.  I don’t have a lot of money to spend, but I will gladly give to businesses who treat their employees with dignity and respect, even if it costs me a little more.   It’s worth it.


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